Offseason Cheatsheet: Defensive backs

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Offseason Cheatsheets continue with your Du Lac approved crib-sheet for the upcoming season. For more, check out the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers.

POSITION OVERVIEW:

Heading into last season, the Irish felt good about their secondary. The Irish only needed to replace David Bruton, and a natural replacement was there with Harrison Smith, who had seen the field as an undersized outside linebacker. Returning after a year away from the football program was Darrin Walls, there to push fellow cornerbacks Robert Blanton, Raeshon McNeil, and Gary Gray. The Irish thought they had all the pieces in place needed for an elite secondary. They were obviously wrong. With a defense hellbent on pressuring the quarterback and failing to do so, the Irish defense struggled mightily against the pass, too often giving up the big play. Whether it was broken coverages or late reads, the secondary took a major step back, and gave up far too many career days to opposing quarterbacks. With safeties Sergio Brown and Kyle McCarthy graduated, the Irish will need to revamp the safety position, with Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter the front-runners for the jobs. A return to the 3-4 defense, more zone coverage, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin should all help a veteran group of defensive backs reach their potential.

ROSTER READING:

Short a program? Here’s every defensive back on the roster.

     No.    Name                      Yr.    Ht./Wt.       Hometown/High School
      2       Darrin Walls            Sr.    6-0/190     Pittsburgh, PA (Woodland Hills)
      4       Gary Gray               Sr.    5-11/190   Columbia, SC (Richland Northeast)
     12      Robert Blanton        Jr.    6-1/192     Matthews, NC (Butler)
     15      Dan McCarthy         Jr.    6-2/205     Youngstown, OH (Cardinal Mooney)
     17      Zeke Motta              So.   6-2/210     Vero Beach, FL (Vero Beach)
     21      Barry Gallup, Jr.      Sr.    5-11/190   Wellesley, MA (Belmont Hill)
     22      Harrison Smith        Sr.    6-2/214     Knoxville, TN (Knoxville Catholic)
     23      Lo Wood                  Fr.    5-10/178   Apopka, FL (Apopka)
     26      Jamoris Slaughter   Jr.     6-0/195     Stone Mountain, GA (Tucker)
     27      E.J. Banks               So.   5-11/182   Pittsburgh, PA (Montour)
     29      Michael Garcia        Sr.    6-2/195     Colorado Springs, CO (St. Mary’s)
     30      James Redshaw      Sr.    5-9/175     North Huntingdon, PA (Norwin)
     33      Chris Salvi               Jr.     5-10/180   Lake Forest, IL (Carmel Catholic)
     35      Andrew Plaska        Jr.     5-11/185    Zeeland, MI (Zeeland West)
     39      Ryan Sheehan        Sr.     5-10/177   Purcellville, VA (Loudown Valley)
     40      Thomas Smith         Sr.    6-1/215      Manchester, CT (East Catholic)
     42      Nick Lezynski          Sr.    5-9/180      Newtown, PA (Notre Dame HS)

KELLY ON DEFENSIVE BACKS

On Gray: “Gary Gray has to play big for us. Gary Gray is a guy that has not been consistent enough on a day-to-day basis. At the end of the day, you have Blanton and you’ve got Walls, and you’ve
got Gary Gray and those are the three guys that have experience. Other
than that, we are tapping into zero experience. So he hears it from me
every day. He has to pick up his play.”

On Smith: “Harrison probably has been the number one guy in terms of his
performance. His
play has been steady and consistent.”

On Motta: “He’s a good player. He’s done a great job for us. I can’t wait to see some of these guys play, including Zeke. He’s going to be running around all over the place.”

Chuck Martin on McCarthy: “McCarthy is a guy who we think is a pretty good football player.We don’t have a lot of numbers back there, but the four guys we have, we feel are capable of helping us win football games.

Martin on Gallup: “He’s done well since he’s been over there. He’s a tough kid. He’s quick. Obviously he’s drinking through a fire house right now. But he’s an older kid, so he’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to go out there and battle and take every rep I can get and keep competing to see how I can help this football team.’ He’s excited and we’re excited so I think it’s a good fit.”

Martin on Wood: “We’re getting unbelievable consistent effort out of him… He is trying to do it right every single snap. His approach to the game is absolutely what a coach is looking for.”

Martin on three veteran cornerbacks: “If you don’t think R.J., Darrin Walls and Gary Gray are going to play all the football they would ever want in a million years and more, that’s what I’m trying to prepare them for because they’re going to be on special teams.”

CRYSTAL BALL:

Believe it or not, the secondary wasn’t as bad as they looked last year. If a football team commits to sending six players after the quarterback every snap and they don’t get there, it’s the secondary that looks bad, not the defensive line and linebackers that didn’t get the pressure. Regardless of fault, the secondary was dreadful and has a lot to prove this season, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin has his work cut out for him, building back a group that’s confidence was shot last season. While depth is thin after some attrition, each position group has four solid players, and as long as they stay healthy, the defensive backfield won’t be anywhere near the liability it was last year.

POSITION STRENGTH:

B- It’s tough to give this group too good of a grade after rewatching most of last season, but the potential is there for the secondary to become an asset. Getting consistent play out of the safeties will be the key. 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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